Visually impaired people will face difficulties voting independently on Saturday

Serious shortfalls in new system designed to make private voting easier, says activist

The ballot paper template system that helps voters with visual impairments to line up candidates to numbers. Photograph Courtesy: Department of Housing.

The ballot paper template system that helps voters with visual impairments to line up candidates to numbers. Photograph Courtesy: Department of Housing.

 

Visually impaired people will face difficulties voting independently on Saturday due to inadequate systems designed to help them cast their ballots, an organisation representing their rights has said.

The 2020 General Election is the first in which those with impairments can avail of a new system designed to make voting easier so they can do so privately, without the help of a third party.

However, Robbie Sinnott of the Voice of Vision Impairment organisation said serious shortfalls had been discovered on the eve of the election.

The Department of Housing has provided a “ballot paper template” system which simply allows voters to place tabs over the sheet of candidates, lining up corresponding numbers that can be felt by touch.

The voter can then call a free-phone service which talks them through the candidates and their corresponding numbers, allowing the voter to tick the box on the right candidate.

Mr Sinnott said this system is unworkable as it can take an average of eight minutes to hear each candidate list and the voter will have to listen to this multiple times in order to place each vote in the sequence they prefer. In addition, it is not possible to rewind or fast forward the information.

Smart phones

A preferable system allows them to use smart phones to read out the list of candidates from returning officer websites. While this is far more manageable, Mr Sinnott claimed a number of constituencies do not have such websites available.

Further, he said, easels on which the new templates can be mounted have not been made available. These are necessary so voters do not have to physically line up their tabs with the sheet of paper on a narrow voting booth shelf, ensuring it does not slip and inadvertently lead to the wrong candidate being selected of even a spoilt ballot.

“They tell you to find a table somewhere but the problem there is anyone could be looking at you,” he said.

The only other option is for people to seek the help of a companion or presiding officer to help them cast their ballots but Mr Sinnott said this raised issues with privacy and verifiability.

“Many blind people will not be able to vote independently tomorrow because the department are not listening to our solutions,” he said, referring to the ready availability of constituency specific websites that link candidates to specific numbers.

Mr Sinnott, who was born with a severe visual impairment, took a successful High Court action upholding his right to vote privately and without assistance.

In 2017 the court agreed with Mr Sinnott that there was insufficient recognition of the duty imposed by the Oireachtas and the Constitution to assure a secret ballot.

In response to his concerns, the department said the new template system has been used in two referendums, the presidential election and European and local elections and had received positive feedback.

“While comprehensive arrangements are in place to assist participation in the electoral process by individuals with physical disabilities, the department continues to seek to improve these arrangements and to have regard to the needs of such persons,” it said.

Meanwhile Solidarity/People Before Profit candidate outgoing TD Brid Smith has demanded clarification on why she was omitted from the audio list of candidates provided to voters in her Dublin South Central constituency.

In a statement, campaign manager Barney Doherty said it was an “affront to democracy” to leave out the name of a sitting TD and said he was told by the Dublin City returning officer that the audio service had been outsourced to a private company.

A spokesman for the Department of Housing confirmed the number was taken out of service due to the discrepancy. Last night, however, the same number was inexplicably connecting to the 1850 number of a private telecoms company instead.

The office of the Dublin City returning officer, who is responsible for the constituency service, could not be reached for comment.

“This omission is a deep insult to the visually impaired community as well as an affront to the democratic process itself,” Mr Doherty said. “I am calling on the returning officer to take responsibility.”